The Rumpelstiltskin Problem

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The Rumpelstiltskin Problem Page 3

by Vivian Vande Velde

  "Oh," she said. "And you heard me crying from your world?"

  "Well," the young elf said gently, "you were crying quite loudly."

  Della finally took the handkerchief he was offering and wiped her nose. Blowing would have been more effective, she knew, but too noisy and undignified. "I don't usually cry. I know it's stupid and it doesn't help anything and it's unattractive and—"

  "And I heard it," Rumpelstiltskin said. "And I came to see what was the matter. So sometimes it does help." He stood and looked around the room. "Castle," he said as though he hadn't noticed before where he was. "Despite the straw." He looked more closely at Della. "You don't look like a castle person."

  "I'm not," she admitted. "I'm a mill person. Except that our mill burned down. And my father told the king I could spin straw into gold so that we could get a little bit of gold from the king so that we could rebuild the mill and then we would have paid the gold back except that the king locked my father in the dungeon and me in here and I have to spin all this straw into gold tonight or he's going to cut off my head."

  Rumpelstiltskin was obviously impressed. "You can spin straw into gold?"

  "No," Della said.

  "Then," Rumpelstiltskin said, "I think your plan has a flaw."

  "That's why I was crying." Della rested her face in her hands.

  "You're not going to start crying again, are you?" Rumpelstiltskin asked, sounding worried.

  "No," Della said. "You can go back where you came from. I won't bother you again."

  But the young elf stayed where he was.

  After a while he said, "You weren't bothering me. I just wish I could help you."

  The sad thing was that, even without raising her head and looking at him, Della could tell he was sincere. Helpless, but sincere.

  "I think it's really sweet," he continued, "that you were planning to return the money even before the king gave it to you. But I've never heard of spinning straw into gold. I wouldn't know where to begin."

  "That's all right," Della said. "Probably getting one's head chopped off is less unpleasant than starving to death."

  After another while Rumpelstiltskin said, "But I do have another idea."

  Della finally looked up.

  "We could throw the straw out the window, then I could replace it with gold from my world, so long as it doesn't have to be spun out."

  "I'm sure the king wouldn't complain no matter what form the gold was in, but would you really be willing to do that?"

  Rumpelstiltskin nodded. "In exchange."

  "In exchange for what?" Della asked.

  "What do you have?"

  Della considered. The mill had burned down. All she had was what she'd been wearing when the fire had started: her second-best dress with her mother's wedding ring pinned to the collar for decoration. "I have this gold ring, which belonged to my mother before she died," Della said, unpinning the ring and holding it out.

  Rumpelstiltskin looked from her to the ring and back to her again. "You want me to substitute this straw for a roomful of gold, and you're offering me one gold ring in exchange?"

  Della felt her face go red in embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wasn't thinking—"

  "No, no," Rumpelstiltskin said. "I didn't mean..." She could tell he was genuinely distressed he'd embarrassed her. "The ring will be fine."

  She handed it over, for even if he meant to take it and run and never come back with gold for the straw, she wouldn't be any worse off than she was now.

  But he didn't run off. He kept disappearing (sideways, he insisted, between the particles), but he kept returning with gold cups and gold coins and gold jewelry, assuring her that everything would be fine, that the king couldn't possibly chop off her head. And Della kept throwing straw out the window, till the next thing she knew, she heard the king's voice on the other side of the door saying, "It's dawn. Unlock the door." She threw the last armful of straw out the window, and when she turned back, Rumpelstiltskin was gone and the king was standing in the doorway, blinking in amazement.

  "Well done," the king said, taking a bit of snuff. "I must say: well done."

  "Thank you sir," Della said, curtsying. "Now if you don't mind, sir..."

  Before she could finish, the king gestured to one of the pages, who reached into a bag hanging from his belt. He picked out three gold coins and dropped them, one by one, into Della's hand.

  "Thank you, sir," Della said, curtsying again. "I—"

  "In fact," the king said, "this is so well done, I think we'll hire you again for tonight."

  "Oh," Della said, "but—"

  The king gestured to another page. "Clean her up," he ordered. "Feed her. Keep her amused till tonight." He looked around the room appreciatively again. "Well done," he repeated.

  Which didn't make Della feel any better at all.

  The servants dressed Della in a gown richer than any she'd ever had. And they laid out a banquet for her, the most delicious food she'd ever tasted, on silver dishes. And all day long different ones played the lute and sang songs for her, and they brushed her hair till it shone like silk, and they manicured her nails and were friendly in every way. But when evening came, they locked her in a room even bigger than the first and filled, except for the area around the spinning wheel, with straw.

  Della sat down on the floor. Well, she told herself, except for the threat of getting your head chopped off, you've never had a more wonderful day. Then she tried to tell herself that she was lucky to have had the day, but she didn't feel lucky. All that gold Rumpelstiltskin had brought, and here she was back where she had started. It was kind of him to have tried to help, but it was all for nothing. She put her face in her hands and sighed.

  And looked up again when she felt a gentle touch on her arm. "I wasn't crying," she pointed out.

  "No," Rumpelstiltskin said, "but this time I was looking for you." He walked around the room, or at least that part of the room that wasn't filled with straw. "More straw into gold," he observed. "Is the king still threatening to cut off your head?"

  Della nodded.

  "Did he even pay you for the last batch?"

  Della held out the three gold coins the king's page had given her.

  "Quite a bargain." Rumpelstiltskin crouched down beside her. "Offer them to me, and I'll bring more gold."

  "Offer you three gold coins for a roomful of gold?" Della said. "At least the ring had sentimental value."

  Rumpelstiltskin just smiled at her. "Offer them to me," he repeated.

  Della put the gold coins into his hand.

  Then, just as they had done the previous night, Rumpelstiltskin brought armloads of gold from between the particles while Della threw straw out the window. But this time Della knew the king would be pleased, so, instead of worrying, she and Rumpelstiltskin talked and laughed together as though they were old friends.

  By the time the king returned at dawn, all the straw was gone and the room was filled with gold.

  "Thank you," Della whispered as they heard the key turn in the lock.

  Rumpelstiltskin bowed, then disappeared.

  The door banged open.

  "Well done!" the king exclaimed once again. "Truly, magnificently well done."

  "Yes," Della said. "And now I must be leaving or my father will be wor—"

  "Nonsense," the king said. "Your father is fine. And we're having such a good time together. I insist you stay."

  "Stay?" Della repeated.

  "Of course," the king said. "Someone with your abilities will make an excellent queen."

  "Queen?" Della repeated.

  The king gave a gracious nod. "Spin another roomful of straw into gold, and we'll consider it your dowry. I'll marry you the following day."

  "Oh my," Della said.

  The king gestured to one of the servants. "Dress her in the finest silks and jewels," he ordered. "Feed her off my own dishes. Treat her like a queen till tonight."

  "But," Della started, "but—"

The king kissed her hand and swept out of the room.

  The servants dressed Della in a gown richer than any she'd ever seen, heavy with beads and jewels, and there were more jewels for around her neck and fingers and to hang from her ears; and they laid out a banquet for her, with food even more sumptuous than the day before, and they served it on dishes of ivory, with knives and spoons of gold; and all day long they played violins and harpsichords for her; and they brushed her hair till it shone like gold, and pedicured her nails, and were respectful in every way. But when evening came, they locked her in a room even bigger than the first two rooms and filled, except for the area around the spinning wheel, with straw.

  "Rumpelstiltskin," Della said out loud, "if ever there was a time I needed you, now is it."

  The young elf appeared before her. He bowed just as he'd been bowing when he'd disappeared that morning, as though he'd been waiting all day to come back to her.

  "This time," Della said, "at least I have something to offer you." Taking off the ruby earrings, she said, "And I've thought of a way out of this: I'll tell the king that my magic spinning cannot be done more than three times for any one person. Three is a magical number, you know." She unfastened the diamond necklace, but Rumpelstiltskin hadn't even taken the earrings yet. "What's the matter?" she asked.

  "Those aren't yours to give," he said. "Those are the king's."

  "Oh." Della indicated her rings, and the jewels sewn into the bodice of her dress.

  Rumpelstiltskin shook his head. "Didn't the king pay you for the second roomful of gold?"

  "No," Della said. "He told me he would marry me and make me queen."

  "I see," Rumpelstiltskin said. "First he says, 'Spin the straw into gold, or I'll chop your head off,' then he says, 'Spin the straw into gold, or I'll chop your head off,' and then he says, 'Spin the straw into gold, and I'll marry you.' The man has a way with words. No wonder you want to marry him."

  "That's not fair," Della protested. "It's not every day a miller's daughter gets the chance to marry a king."

  "No," Rumpelstiltskin said softly. "I would imagine not."

  Della shivered. Having come so far, she had finally let herself think that she might actually survive her father's plan. She said, "I have nothing to offer you."

  Rumpelstiltskin looked at her for a long moment before answering. "Then," he said, "I will do it for you for nothing."

  Once again they worked together, Rumpelstiltskin bringing gold from his world into the locked room while Della threw straw out the window. But while the first night they had worked frantically, unsure whether the king would be fooled, and while the second night they had worked enjoying each other's company—this third night they had nothing to say to each other, and they worked silently and grimly.

  As Della threw the last handfuls of straw out the window, she turned to the young elf who had three times now saved her life and said, "Rumpelstiltskin, I—"

  But he had already returned to his own world without a word, leaving Della to wait for the king alone in the graying dawn.

  The king was delighted with his new roomful of gold, but when Della told him that the laws of magic prohibited her from spinning any more gold for him, he complained bitterly that she had tricked him. He was all for chopping her head off, but the king's advisors said that, since the royal marriage had already been announced, this would probably be a bad idea.

  And so the king and the miller's daughter were married.

  The king decreed that, as queen, Della was prohibited from doing common things such as spinning, and he used this as an excuse for why she no longer spun straw into gold. And as for the miller, the king pronounced him Master Miller of the Realm, and all the other millers had to pay a tax to support him so that the king's father-in-law wouldn't have to support himself by common labor either.

  But the king begrudged the gold Della no longer spun, and the marriage was not a happy one.

  Eventually Della announced that she was expecting a child. This made the king happy, for he said it was time he had an heir. But when the child was born, it was a girl, and the king, saying a girl did not make a fit heir, wouldn't even visit his new daughter.

  "Name her what you will," the king told Della. "It's no concern of mine."

  Della sat on the window ledge of the nursery and rocked her unnamed baby daughter back and forth, so furious her eyes filled with angry tears. She stared out the window, so that her tears wouldn't fall on the infant, for she was determined that the child should never learn how her own father did not love her.

  From beside her, a soft voice said, "She's lovely," and Della turned and saw Rumpelstiltskin gently touch the baby's tiny hand. "She's lovely," Rumpelstiltskin repeated. "She looks just like you. Why are you crying?"

  It was the first time Della had seen him in over a year, since that last morning in that room full of gold. She wanted to tell him how very pleased she was to see him, how she had thought of his kindness every day of her queenship, but instead she blurted out how the king was disappointed to have a daughter instead of a son.

  "Anyone with any sense would be proud to have her as a daughter," Rumpelstiltskin said. "But maybe you could tell the king that when she gets to be older she'll be able to spin straw into gold." He knelt beside her. "I'll come back," he promised, "and bring him three more roomsful."

  "That's very kind of you," Della said. "But I'm sure he'd love her if he only stopped to think about it."

  In a very quiet voice Rumpelstiltskin said, "I don't think love is something you stop to think about."

  "What I mean is," Della said, "I'm sure he does love her, but he just doesn't realize it. Maybe I should tell him she's sick. If he's worried about her, then he'll see how precious she is."

  "But the servants would tell him she isn't sick," Rumpelstiltskin pointed out. "You could tell him a wicked old elf is going to steal her away unless..."

  Rumpelstiltskin paused to consider, and Della said, "You don't look wicked or old."

  Rumpelstiltskin smiled at her, which made him look even less wicked and old.

  It almost made Della wish ... But that was too dangerous a thought.

  "We'll tell him that you're the one who taught me how to spin straw into gold," she said. "And that in exchange I promised you my firstborn child. The only way to break the agreement..." She sighed. "Whatever you ask the king to do," she said, "it has to be something easy, to make sure he can do it."

  "Certainly," Rumpelstiltskin agreed. "How easy?"

  Della thought and finally said, "He has to guess your name."

  "Easier," Rumpelstiltskin suggested. "It's not that common a name."

  "Tell him you'll give him three days before you'll take the baby," Della said. "Surely in that time we can arrange some way for somebody to learn your name."

  But it wasn't as easy as Della thought.

  The king was too busy with councils and court decisions to even ask why a wicked old elf wanted his daughter. But he did have the servants in the castle write out a list of all the names they could think of.

  The next day, when Rumpelstiltskin appeared in the throne room, the king read out every name they had, starting with Aaron and ending with Zachary.

  Rumpelstiltskin shook his head after each name, and when it was over he said they had two more days but they'd never guess.

  The king had to be at the dedication of a new ship that day, but he ordered the councillors and scholars of the castle to look through all the old history chronicles and put together a list of every name they could find.

  The next day, Rumpelstiltskin again appeared in the throne room, and the king read out this new list, starting with Absalom and ending with Ziv.

  Once again Rumpelstiltskin shook his head after each name, but this time he gave Della a worried look before announcing they had one more day but they'd never guess. He was beginning to worry, Della could tell, that they never would.

  The king had been invited to a hunting party with the neighboring king, but bef
ore leaving he sent servants out of the castle into the countryside to see if they could discover any new names.

  As the servants trickled back home that night and the next morning, one after another with no new names, Della decided that she would have to just blurt out the name Rumpelstiltskin and hope that the king didn't ask where she'd heard it.

  Then the last of the castle servants returned.

  "Good news, Your Majesty," this last man said to her. "Although I searched all day yesterday without finding any new names, as I was walking through the woods on the way back to the castle this morning, I came across that same elf who's been threatening the young princess. Fortunately he didn't see me. And even more fortunately he was dancing around a campfire singing, 'Yo-ho, Rumbleskilstin—"'

  "Excuse me?" Della said. "Rumbleskilstin?"

  The servant repeated it, incorrectly again, saying, "He sang, 'Yo-ho, Rumbleskilstin is my name. Rumbleskilstin, Rumbleskilstin, Rumbleskilstin. The king doesn't know it. The queen doesn't know it. Only I know it, and I'm Rumbleskilstin.'"

  "That's quite a song," Della said, trying not to laugh at the picture of the normally dignified Rumpelstiltskin dancing around a campfire, and—after all that—the servant getting the name wrong. Still, Rumpelstiltskin certainly wouldn't complain that it wasn't exactly right. "Well," she agreed, "this is indeed fortunate. You have our gratitude, mine and the king's."

  At least Della hoped the king would be grateful.

  Rumpelstiltskin appeared in the throne room at the appointed time, but the king was late getting back from an appointment with the royal wigmaker. When the king did come in, laughing and chatting with his companions, he didn't appear nearly as worried as Rumpelstiltskin did.

  "We discovered a likely name," Della told the king.

  "Good," he said, fluffing his new wig, which was even curlier than his other 150 wigs.


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